Category Archives: whisky

Review: Greek Whisky

Greek Whisky: The Localization of a Global Commodity

Tryfon Bampilis. Greek Whisky: The Localization of a Global Commodity. Berghahn Press. New York: 2013. ISBN: 978-0-85745-877-3.

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

The Greeks do not make whisky, but they surely drink a lot of it. Why they do and how that came to be is the subject of Tryfon Bampilis’ wonderful book. Greeks, Bampilis contends, have come to associate whisky with things “modern.” Whether it be in Athens or Skyros, an island in the Northern Aegean, whether it be in a modern restaurant or a traditional gathering place, Greeks are showing their connection to a larger world of sophistication. They arrived at this point as they became more oriented towards Western countries, especially after World War II, and also because well-crafted advertising and merchandizing helped this change.

Bampilis first sets his discussion by placing Greek whisky consumption in the larger issue of modernization and commoditization. It is an excellent discussion, and I would recommend it to people unfamiliar with this literature. Bampilis places whisky alongside other items in Greece as a growing marker of how, where, and when a person chooses to establish both a statement and a preference for this drink. He sees drinking whisky as a statement of a stylistic identity, of a person saying: “This is who I am.” Moreover, this identity is established, often regardless of the individual’s ability to maintain a lifestyle that the identity of drinking whisky entails. In other words, many people spend more on whisky than their incomes can support. (p. 18, et seq.)

How did the Greeks get to this place? Largely till the period before WWI, Bampilis argues, Greeks drank “traditional” spirits, such as ouzo–a licorice liquor, and they drank them in traditional settings, such as neighborhood bars and music venues. If the drinking was outside the home, it was mostly men who drank in these settings. Men generally drank the harder liquors. When women drank, they sipped sweeter liquors, and they did so at home.

Yet many Greeks also had an historical and spiritual connection with England, dating, in part from the early nineteenth century War of Independence and England’s help in it.   Things English began to be considered as modern and sophisticated. That included whisky. As the drinking of whisky became more widespread, Greek advertising featured English text in addition to Greek text in its promotion of whisky (see, for example, p. 41.)

Bampilis sees the popularization of this drink arising in many ways, adding to the richness of this book. The ways included movies, music, the increasing inclusion of Greece into the Common Market. Movies featured sophisticated men and women dressed in Western clothes, sitting in bars, drinking whisky. Bampilis reviews the history of the Greek movie industry to show precisely this association of whisky and modernism. He ties it to the history of Greek contemporary music as well, and he situates each kind of music in different settings where whisky is consumed. This discussion is fascinating in and of itself, for it features the ways in which media can and do change tastes–and styles.

Furthermore, he places all of this discussion within the larger history of the last several centuries. After the Second World War and the Greek Civil War, the conclusion of which saw Greece remaining within the Western sphere of influence, more Greeks identified themselves as part of the West. Greece became part of the larger European trading block and large corporations edged out smaller distributers of Western spirits. As the subtitle of the book suggests, many distributors targeted not just the modernization aspirations of more affluent and urban Greeks, they also featured local ways of appealing to these markets.

One intriguing discussion is the way in which the drinking of whisky brought together two contradictory styles and traditions. After the First World War, most Greeks living in Turkey were forced to move to Greece in the “Population Exchange” following the defeat of the Greek Army in Asia Minor in 1922. These Greeks played different types of music from what had existed in the country before. Initially, many Greeks saw these ‘musics’ as ‘tainted,’ affected by Turkish music and not suitable for people exploring their own traditions. Over time, however, these different styles of music came to be played not just in lower-class venues but eventually in nightclubs where Greeks came to display their taste for sophistication. Images of this were featured in ads and movies were set in these venues (p.112, et seq.) Bampilis’ discussions of Greek movies and music are delightful and informative, especially to people not familiar with Greek history and culture.

Bampilis then delineates how gender roles, stylistic presentations, and rituals accompanied these transformations in drinking and changed over time. He goes into substantive detail first about the drinking life in Athens. Bampilis, who claims he is Athenian on one side of his family, and Skyrian on the other side, used his family and school contacts to investigate Athens and Skyros for his informants and for their locales.

The picture he paints of the role of whisky and other drinks in the drinking life of Athens is complex and nuanced. In Athens, those men who drink whisky do so to signify modernism and masculinity Moreover, these men compete in several areas–spending money on the liquor itself, on how much liquor they can consume without appearing out of control, (p.141,) and of spending money on associated rituals, such as throwing flowers onto the stage for the performer (p.142.) The flower ritual, in recent times, replaced an earlier ritual of breaking bottles. Women who consider themselves modern also consume whisky, often as their sole drink (p.135.) As a general rule, single malt whiskies are the drink of choice. In addition, little food, except for nuts and similar edibles, is consumed when drinking whisky.

Bampilis paints a different role of why whisky and other alcoholic drinks are consumed on Skyros, his other research site. He presents a detailed portrait of an island from an historical and ethnographic perspective, giving both the specialist and non-specialist a rich view of the social life of the island. Despite its small population of less than three thousand, there are many public and private venues for liquor consumption, including whisky. The choice of liquors to drink and where to drink them is another debate between modernism and traditionalism (p.177.) For the most part, traditional Greek liquors are drunk in the home and for certain occasions. Women drink ” …a sweet liqueur, which is homemade and is considered a female drink…(p.173.)” Alcohol consumed in the home is accompanied by different kinds of foods. Meze on Skyros is usually local cheese, olives, and bread and is “…consumed outside the home…(pp.174-5.)” It is symbolically opposed to “real food” which is “…made in the household by the housewife (p.175.)” The household is the domain of the “feminine (p.175.)”

The above examples are just a small picture of Skyros’ social life and the role of alcoholic beverages in it. Bampilis covers older families, people who have spent time in Athens, shepherds, laborers, single men, single women, married women with children, married women without children, and prostitutes. Each group has its own choices of drinks, how much one can drink, what to eat with which drink, and what music to listen to when doing all the above. As Bampilis notes, “The modernism of whisky on Skyros Island in the North Aegean is associated with an imagined Athenian style, which opposes the values of shepherhood [sic] and domesticity and is widely shared by the laborers of the island pp.210-11.)”

Moreover, gambling is one of the ways men engage in competition and reciprocal exchange in Skyros (and, as Bampilis notes, other North Aegean islands (p.189 et seq.) Like drinking whisky and other beverages, men play different card games in different venues, with different kinds of interactions, including how to deal with the people who lose at cards. It is also a way for laborers “…to make their style with ksodema (spending) and identify with the popular culture of Athens (p.197.)” Bampilis concludes his analysis of the role of whisky in Skyros society thusly: ” [whisky consumption} is for those who want to break apart from the matrifocal rules and extended matrifocal kinship obligations (p.213.)”

Greek Whisky is of importance for those anthropologists studying the ways food and other products become both globalized and localized in neo-liberal economies and societies. It is of further importance because of the ways in which Bampilis portrays how politics and media create reinforce these lifestyle changes, how they become genderized, how they express styles of identity, and how they relate to social life, including different kinds of food, movies and music. It is also useful for students of economics and business, and it is appropriate for upper division undergraduates. And it is a delight for the general reader. One suggestion for future editions of this book is that, given the large number of Greek words, a glossary be provided in addition to the Index.

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Book Review: Greek Whisky!

BampilisGreek

Bampilis, Tryfon. 2013. Greek Whisky. The Globalization of a Global Commodity. Oxford: Berghahn.

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

As a culinary historian who has made several culinary history trips to Greek venues, I looked forward to learning more about the consumption of alcohol as a dimension of Greek food habits and cuisine. Greek Whisky is not the book to gain such knowledge, because whisky, in contrast to indigenous Greek alcoholic beverages including wines, beers, and ouzo, is consumed mostly in social situations without food, in modernizing, Western-gazing venues that intentionally compare and contrast with traditional food and beverage settings. The goal of this volume is to describe “the social life of whisky” as a commodity, whose importation, marketing, representation in the Greek media, and inter-individual ritualistic consumption, has made whisky drinking (occasionally throwing) a Greek symbol of modernity, masculinity, and symbolic break with the past. Whiskey signifies expensive, imported European spirits, primarily Scotch, which tie the Greeks who spend heavily to imbibe them to the rest of Western Europe and symbolic “modernity”. To craft his argument, the author adopts a historical and “performances of consumption in relation to style”-based ethnographic analysis, which “follows the whisky” along historical food chains and media representation and into the drinking halls where he did his research.

Two detailed ethnographic components focus in on the primary site for whisky introduction, which is Athens, and compare whisky consumption styles there with drinking venues on the Island of Skyros in the North Aegean, which is his mother’s original home. This secondary site, which has been transformed from a farming, shepherding, laboring, and merchant economy to a tourist venue, offers in depth ethnographic analysis of changing gender, kinship, age-related, and occupational categories. All of which, Bampilis argues, are expressed through drinking styles, by which principally males distinguish and separate themselves from the formerly matriarchal culture, where females controlled property and household purse strings. He draws a convincing dichotomy between traditional domestic (meza) and non-traditional outside (ekso) values, respectively expressed through different styles of social drinking and spirits-sharing situations through which individuals literally perform and construct their modern as opposed to traditional identities. In Athens, discriminating drinkers further differentiate themselves through their very expensive tastes in single-malt scotches, and occasionally, “‘out of control’ mentality materialized in scotch” which the author finds representative of “excessive unproductive mentality” (p.149), with devastating economic consequences for the individuals and those who rely on their financial contributions. The ethnography spans the decades after World War II, up through and including the current economic downturn and nation-wide financial disaster.

Food anthropology or other food-studies courses might adopt individual chapters for different pedagogical ends. The preface and introduction provide a detailed synopsis of all major symbolic, exchange, and reflexive anthropological and sociological literature on globalization. This exhaustive social-science and philosophical theoretical framework connecting social, economic, and cultural globalization and localization, might be overwhelming for undergraduates, but provide a comprehensive “crib” for Ph.D. or possibly masters students. Chapters 2 and 3, which offer a detailed evidence base tying together the importation and marketing history with the distinctive, ritualized, consumption patterns surrounding imported spirits, might be useful in communications courses, especially as the reference points in these comprehensive business, advertising, and cinema media histories of Scotch, come copiously and effectively illustrated. The comparative ethnographies in chapters 4 and especially 5, the Skyrian case study, are valuable in their own right. A productive class discussion point throughout might be whether the author needed to ground so many paragraphs in post-modern jargon to make his overall points about localization of global commodities, and what continual reference to symbolic performance of social styles rather than identities, adds to the interpretation.

The volume has been produced without careful copy-editing or a glossary of Greek terms. These are serious omissions that the series editors should take care to correct in subsequent publications. 

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